(photo credit: Christopher Nelson)
Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman, wrote two volumes of “Democracy in America” after a visit that was initially commissioned in 1831 as a study of America’s prison system. Yet Tocqueville and his companion Gustave de Beaumont wound up focusing their visit on America’s version of representative democracy instead because they were enamored with how it had succeeded here and failed in so many other places, including their home country.
He admired America for realizing the democratic revolution he thought had been bubbling for several centuries, finally doing away with old forms of aristocracy and lending equality to all men (and later women). However, he also warned of the pitfalls of unchecked democracy, which included a “tyranny of the majority” and “soft despotism” on the part of our leaders.
“Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom,” Tocqueville wrote.
Fast forward 183 years later and not only does this statement still ring true, it serves as a mandate for the Future of California Elections’ (FoCE) existence and proves its necessity in a state that ranks among the bottom five in both voter registration and participation. The freedom democracy affords us is something we often tout, but clearly we have been slacking on learning to use properly if large swaths of eligible voters never even show up to the polls.
It is under this pretext that the FoCE held its second annual conference at the California Endowment in downtown Los Angeles. Hoping to reverse the trend of declining turnout, policymakers, researchers, election officials and advocates gathered to discuss the challenges and advances in the field of elections as well as explore new opportunities to improve participation and election administration in California.
“Election administration needs to be data driven and we need to look at the voter experience,” said Dean Logan,Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk of Los Angeles County. “The election process belongs to voters, we need to get past the assumptions that we have as insiders,” he continued.
Dean Logan and Heather Smith discuss increasing civic participation (photo credit: Christopher Nelson)
California boasts the largest and most diverse electorate in the nation. Meeting the vast array of needs and expectations of the state’s highly mobile, ethnically, linguistically, and socially diverse voter population poses significant challenges for election administrators.
“First we need to take administrative barriers off the table,” Logan said, such as complex registration processes and outdated voting methods. “We get stuck on these and we need to move beyond those barriers so we can figure out what the other issues are.”
It’s important to note that it’s not all bad news in California, however. While other states have made it harder to vote, California has implemented reforms, such as online voter registration, making it easier than ever to cast a ballot. Yet despite recent efforts to ease access to the ballot box, millions of Californians still aren’t voting.
Burgeoning voting blocs such as Latino, Asian Americans and young voters across the ethnic and cultural spectrum in California are failing to exercise their clout because they don’t know how, don’t know that they even can and if they do, they might not be able to in their native language.
Latinos represent one out of every four California voters, of which one out of five have limited English proficiency, according to Rosalind Gold, Senior Director of Policy at NALEO.
“Everyone gets basic cable, but not everyone gets the premium channels,” she said, making an analogy to the disparate levels of language services offered at polls across counties.
Furthermore, civic education is all but non-existent in our K-12 school system. As many panelists indicated, fostering civic engagement must start before people are of voting age. Restoring the notion of civics classes that teach the basics of government as a fundamental part of K-12 curricula is paramount to all else.
“Having a civic culture is mandatory,” said Heather Smith, the outgoing Executive Director of Rock the Vote, unquestionably the largest national effort focused solely on engaging young voters over the past two decades. “A policy won’t necessarily change that,” she continued. “It’s transferred and passed on; if you vote in two to three elections in a row at a young age you’re a voter for life.”
Given that democracy starts at the ballot box, so too does the road to good governance. Key characteristics of good governance include accountability, transparency, effectiveness, inclusion and responsiveness, all of which hinge on robust participation. Transparency alone won’t necessarily foster accountability and better services, a well-informed citizenry must also be actively engaged.
In other words, learning how to use our freedom properly has only gotten more complex since Tocqueville took his first tour of America and dubbed ours the best system of representative democracy the world had seen and the model for all others to come.
It’s a mantle we cannot, and should not, take lightly. The FoCE is at the forefront of preserving this status in the state of California and at least in the realm of voter education and engagement, restoring the luster that the Golden State, and by association, America, has lost.
(photo credit: Christopher Nelson)